Sydney Anglicanism: church or cult?
Keith Mascord’s Open Letter to the Standing Committee
of the Anglican Church, Diocese of Sydney
November 29 2006: Dr Keith Mascord published an open letter to the Standing Committee of the Anglican Church, Diocese of Sydney, appealing for a change of heart in the culture of the church. The letter seems to have created quite a stir!
Dear members of Standing Committee,
I am writing with the encouragement of South Sydney Regional Council1 to lay before you some deep concerns I have about the direction in which we appear to be going as a Diocese, to call for a change of heart, and to make some practical suggestions. The concerns are not only mine. They distil countless conversations I have had with many people right across the life of the Diocese; including its leaders and teachers, including many who feel voiceless and powerless.
A vision for the Diocese: If someone were to ask me, ‘What sort of a Diocese would you like this Diocese to be?’ I would probably reply along these lines: ‘I would like to see a more gracious and loving Diocese, within which all people are treated with tender love and respect. I would also, secondly, like to see a more humble Diocese where we all readily acknowledge that we can and must learn from each other. And, finally, I would like to see a Diocese where lively and respectful debate is carried out on the range of issues that face us as a church coming into this 21st century; where other points of view are valued (even when we disagree with them), because they help to sharpen our own thinking – and also because we might learn something from them!’
That is the sort of Diocese I would like to see, but sadly that is not what I am seeing emerge. If anything, the trend is in the opposite direction. What has fuelled my concern has been my own experience and the experience of the Parish of South Sydney over the last 12 months. I am sure that not one of us doubts the importance of love (or, for that matter, humility and openness to enquire after the truth). I am also sure that our Diocesan leaders are motivated by love. However, love is primarily practical and is measured by how well we treat each other, and not just those we agree with or get on with. For a large part of this year, after an early promise of full consultation, the Parish of South Sydney was almost totally sidelined from the process of choosing a new Rector, its appeals ignored, its respectful questions fobbed off (for more details, see appendix). Christian love treats people with respect, but a similar failure to love also happened in the appointment of four new members to the Indigenous Peoples Committee (see below), with its indigenous Chairman, my colleague at South Sydney, not even consulted.
Love has characteristics that simply were not shown in each of these instances, and I suspect that these are not isolated occurrences. I would urge Standing Committee to investigate. Love is also a matter of ethos or spirit. People and churches can be known for their love. Love is a fruit of the Spirit. It ought to characterise us as a Diocese, but, sadly, alarmingly, I simply cannot remember us ever being described as loving! I talked with a minister recently who had just come back to Sydney from another Diocese. He was staggered by the critical coldness of some of Sydney Anglicanism’s more ardent sons and daughters. This might just be the enthusiasm of youth, but I couldn’t help but think of Jesus’ words, ‘by their fruit you will know them.’ If our Christian youth are known less for their ‘love, joy, peace and patience’, and more for their suspicion, coldness, aggression and self-righteousness, then we have failed them; and the spirit that animates them is not the Spirit of Christ.
I would, secondly, like to see a more humble Diocese. There are all sorts of reasons why we should be humble. We are creatures, not God. We are sinful creatures whose tendency is to distort even the truths we do know. We are profoundly and often negatively shaped by the cultures we grow up in, including our church cultures. We are often blind to our own faults. We over-react to the faults we perceive in others, creating an opposite extreme. We therefore have more than enough reason to be humble, but I am seeing a disturbing lack of humility. Every year during my time in College, students would turn up thinking that they had pretty much learnt everything they needed to know already and were viewing College as a finishing school. More often than not these were students who had come through the Ministry Training Scheme. College does a pretty good job of knocking that sort of arrogance out of students, but often not completely. And why do we have the problem in the first place? Our feeder congregations are clearly failing the Diocese in not teaching and modelling the sort of epistemic humility our Reformed theology ought to demand.
And it is not just in their theological convictions that the sons and daughters of the Diocese are not being humble. I keep hearing stories of students and graduates of Moore College who bull-doze their way into situations because they think they know best; they have the formulas they believe will work best, regardless of the situation, regardless of whose feelings and opinions are disregarded in the process. Of course, there are exceptions to this – many fine exceptions. I have been on nine Moore College Missions and was almost always proud of the team. Often it was just one or two who made a bad name for the rest of us. However, lack of humility is clearly enough of a problem for Sydney Anglicanism to be known for its arrogance.
Arrogance, or even perceived arrogance, would be understandable, though still inexcusable if we Sydney Anglicans had the truth pretty much bottled up; if our understanding and application of the Bible was the best there is in Australia, or even the world. I think sometimes we think and act as if this was the case. It is, in fact, unjustified arrogance. Speaking personally, I have benefited hugely from studying and teaching at Moore College. It is a fine College with many strengths. But there are also weaknesses and blind spots. One of Moore College’s great strengths, its Biblical theological approach to drawing out the meaning of Scripture, is not matched by an equally rigorous exploration of the history that lies behind and beyond the text – leading all too often to simplistic and formulaic approaches to preaching and application. The point of saying this is not to criticize Moore College, but to say that we all still have a long way to go in our efforts to understand the Scriptures, not to mention the world and ourselves.
I would, finally, love to see the Diocese become a place where lively and respectful debate was carried out in a context of love, in the pursuit of truth. I don’t see this happening, in fact the opposite. There is a disturbing trend towards greater control over and censorship of thought. For example, a questionnaire has just come out for third year ordination candidates asking a series of quite detailed theological questions. Students are assured that some theological diversity is acceptable. However, on certain issues, and these are not specified, ‘greater unanimity and clarity of conviction’ is required. The effect of these words, in a context where students are also well aware of the (strongly held) opinions of those who have put this questionnaire together, and who also have power to determine their future, is that dishonesty and fearful compliance results.
One of the issues canvassed in the questionnaire is whether or not it acceptable for a woman to preach to mixed audiences of men and women. Phillip Jensen has recently told a group of ordination candidates that it is ‘sinful’ for a woman to preach to men; that it is also sinful for a man to allow this.2 Knowledge of this fact will inevitably put pressure on students to tick the acceptable box. This sort of pressure, designed as it clearly is to create compliance of belief, is unacceptable. What it will certainly do is exacerbate an already existing culture of fear that exists within the Diocese.
People are increasingly afraid to voice alternative views; to argue a different case than the dominant line, for fear of being verbally abused and/or socially isolated. People are afraid to go public through fear of being crushed. This is appalling, more characteristic of a cult than of a church. I understand the desire to safeguard the truth. I too am passionate about truth, but the irony is that truth is the first casualty of efforts to stifle healthy and robust debate. It is a sign of lack of confidence in the truth that we attempt to shut down efforts to understand it better, and if the only people we listen to are those who agree with us.
I am worried about the Diocese. I am worried about its future. I am worried about the all engrossing Mission which is producing its own pressures and disappointments. I suspect that one reason that the Mission is not yet thriving as we had hoped it would is because, as a Diocese, we are not sufficiently living in ways that are consistent with the gospel we preach. Not only will God not honour our efforts if we continue to be like this, the people of Sydney who we are seeking to reach are not attracted to this style of Christianity. That certainly is the message I keep hearing in my part of Sydney. In the name of Christ, I am therefore calling for repentance, for a change of heart. I am praying that God will make us more loving, humble and open to truth as together we seek the will and glory of God.
- That an enquiry be commissioned to discover whether the concerns expressed in this letter do indeed reflect the views of people and congregations throughout the Diocese3;
- That a HR policy be developed that creates guidelines for the respectful treatment of people and congregations within the Diocese, creating clear lines of accountability so that grievances can be justly resolved and reconciliation achieved;
- That the administration of the Diocese keep reminding itself of its role as servant of the Parishes; that it adopts a policy of not over-riding a parish’s theological and cultural distinctives except in extreme circumstances. It may be that Parishes need to be encouraged to be more assertive of their ecclesiological priority.
- That the present reluctance to allow non-Sydney and non-Moore College trained people into the Diocese be relaxed (even just a little) to help create a healthier diversity and as a statement of justifiable humility.
- That Ministry Training and Development be developed in such a way that students and ministers are given permission to differ, and are encouraged to pursue truth in an environment which is supportive of good thinking and scholarship. Within the guidelines of a confessional culture, differences must be allowed; discussion and debate must be encouraged so that a persuasional rather than a coercive or compliant culture develops;
- That the need for and form of the Questionnaire for 3rd year Ordination candidates be reviewed by a Task Force of suitably qualified and suitably diverse theologians and pastoral leaders.
- That the Council and Principal of Moore Theological College be encouraged to create and maintain a healthy mix of viewpoints on Faculty. I am often heartened by students who tell me that the Faculty is more diverse and more willing to express divergent points of view than the student body. It would be nice if this greater openness was more general;
Let me finish on a personal note. As you may know, I have recently accepted the position of National Chaplain at Mission Australia. I have started part-time and from next February will be full-time. This is an exciting move for Judy and me. MA wants to reassert its Christian character; to be more decidedly Christian both in its compassionate work and in how the organisation runs. Please pray for me as I contribute to this. Judy and I will be living in Sydney and attending an Anglican Church. I want to continue to work at being more Christ-like myself and to encourage a more Christ-like Diocese. My personal style (born of Christian convictions) is to not burn bridges, but to stubbornly hold onto friendships, even with those with whom I have differences.
I am grateful to you for giving the time to read this.
Rev Dr Keith Mascord
- The views contained in this letter are not necessarily the views of each and every member of the Council. However, when these issues were raised at a recent Regional Council Meeting there appeared to be universal support for the vision for the Diocese outlined within these pages.
- To say this is irresponsible in view of the fact that the Principal of Mary Andrews College thinks otherwise, as does the retiring Vice-Principal of Moore College, as do many other of the Faculty. More than half of this year’s fourth year think it acceptable for a woman to preach to men. To even have this issue included in the Questionnaire is problematic. Women’s ordination is also included, with the clear intention of weeding out those who find it acceptable.
- As a first start in this process, I have already begun to make this letter available as an open letter, inviting those who read it to give feedback on whether a change (or modification) of culture is needed or not.